A leader in Italian menswear now looks to China for fashion’s vanguard, not the US

Ermenegildo Zegna, on the runway in Milan.
Ermenegildo Zegna, on the runway in Milan.
Image: AP Photo/Luca Bruno
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Along with cities such as Paris, Tokyo, and London, New York is recognized as one of the world’s great hubs of culture, fashion, and art. But at a conference in the city this week, the CEO of the iconic Italian menswear brand Ermenegildo Zegna explained that when his company wants to feel the pulse of luxury shoppers, New York is no longer where it goes to try out new products:

“I feel this country [is] my second home, particularly New York, and I can tell you that we used to test new things in this market,” Ermenegildo Zegna, grandson of the brand’s founder and current CEO of the group, explained at the WWD Apparel + Retail CEO Summit in New York yesterday (Oct. 30). “Now we test new things in China, and then if it works, we bring them around the world.”

Ermenegildo Zegna is best known for its traditional tailoring line and the exquisite wool fabrics that its namesake founded the company just over a century ago. But the company, which did nearly €1.2 billion ($1.36 billion) in sales last year, also looks to younger, fashion-forward shoppers with collections such as Z Zegna, which blends activewear elements, and Zegna XXX Couture, which it calls its luxury streetwear collection. Last year, the company acquired a majority stake in Thom Browne, considered by many the most innovative and eccentric men’s tailoring brand around.

Chinese customers, Zegna explained, tend to be younger and more excited about newness and innovation. That shopper “is so alive,” he added. The Chinese shopper is also the one buying most of Zegna’s products, while the US is now the company’s second largest market. “We were the first luxury brand to move to China in 1991, and then the way that market goes is unbelievable,” Zegna said.

Over the past several years, China’s voracious and still growing appetite for high-end goods has made Chinese nationals, shopping inside the country and out, the world’s biggest buyers of luxury. Today’s customer isn’t the same as the one who first made China a destination for luxury brands, though. A report by consulting firm Bain & Company this year noted that Chinese millennials were driving much of the growth in the country. Like younger luxury shoppers around the world, what they want in their fashion purchases is often newness and excitement, while factors such as heritage have moved down the list of priorities (pdf).

Many fashion companies are paying close attention to what those shoppers want. “This influx of going less from West to East, and more from East to West, surely is affecting our way of doing business,” Zegna explained. Asia as a whole now represents about 50% of the company’s sales, he noted, “so we have to be very close and keep invested.”